H. P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Movement — Charles J. Ryan

Chapter 10


About a year after the work was begun in India, an important Council meeting was held at Benares on December 17, 1879, at the palace of the Maharaja of Vizianagram, to reconsider the Rules. A new and revised Constitution was drawn up there and ratified by the Society on February 26-8, 1880, at Bombay. "Universal Brotherhood" was accentuated, and as the three degrees of Fellowship had been allowed to fall into abeyance they were reestablished on esoteric lines. The First Section consisted of the "Initiates in Esoteric Science and Philosophy," the Masters and high chelas, "whom none but such as they voluntarily communicate with have the right to know." The Second Section embraced those Fellows whose courage, fidelity, and devotion to the work had been demonstrated, and who had learned to regard all men as their brothers. The Third Section was probationary, and newly admitted Fellows remained there until they had proved their sincerity and their ability to conquer certain weaknesses, prejudices, etc. Private instructions received by any Fellow from the First Section were not to be put to selfish use nor were they permitted to be revealed without permission. The first object of the Society was defined as "To keep alive in man his spiritual intuitions." The name was modified to "The Theosophical Society or Universal Brotherhood," and advancement in its degrees depended entirely upon merit.

Olcott seems, however, to have had no great enthusiasm for the esoteric aspect of the new constitution, though always fascinated by the mysterious and phenomenal. He gives several pages of his semi-autobiographical Old Diary Leaves to activities at Benares between December 15 and 22, many quite trivial, yet he does not mention this Council meeting on the seventeenth at all. Nor does he discuss the formal ratification later. The only available record of the Council meeting occurs in The Theosophist, April 1880, in a brief formal Report. No discussion is mentioned and the names of Olcott and Sinnett do not appear. Although this constitution revived the public announcement made to inquirers in the circular issued by the parent society in New York in 1878, and gave it official recognition, the spirit of this forward move was soon disregarded.

More than eight years passed before H. P. Blavatsky was able, with the help of W. Q. Judge, to make within the Society an enduring and vital occult nucleus, such as the Masters wished, to serve as the beginning of the revival of the Mystery schools in the West. Olcott's predilection for the more mundane or, as he considered, more practical aspects of the movement, quite natural in a successful man of business, frequently proved embarrassing to H.P.B. She was not always able or even permitted to explain her reasons for certain acts, and there can be little doubt that the urge for the Benares reconstruction came to her from the Masters. The cool reception it received hindered progress, for it is a rule in occultism that the teacher can go no farther than the receptivity of the chela permits.

In the spring of 1880, shortly after the Bombay Congress, H. P. Blavatsky, Colonel Olcott, Damodar K. Mavalankar, and some Parsi, Hindu, and English members made a triumphant tour in Ceylon where they were received with the greatest enthusiasm by audiences of many thousands everywhere they went. H.P.B. and the president publicly identified themselves with the highest ideals of the Buddhas by "taking pansil," as the ceremonial of reciting the Five Precepts of the Good Law, is called. One of the highest Masters, the Maha-chohan, has written, "Buddhism, stripped of its superstitions, is eternal truth" (L.M.W., I, 3).

At that time Buddhism was undergoing a serious crisis in Ceylon. Conditions were entirely different from those in India where complete religious freedom was guaranteed. Brutal attacks were being made on Buddhist meetings, Buddhist religious processions were prohibited, and many oppressive restrictions placed on the proper exercise of the popular religion, while every possible liberty was given to the Christian sects. These conditions were transformed in a few years by the indefatigable efforts of Colonel Olcott, helped by native and other theosophists of various religious affiliations. Olcott took an intense personal interest in the revival of Buddhism and worked hard for it during the remainder of his life. In 1881, with the help of the learned monk, Sumangala, and after long research and much correspondence with the leaders of the Buddhist sects, Olcott brought out a standard Buddhist Catechism, the first of its kind. It has been translated into many languages and accepted all over the Buddhist world. In 1884 he went to London to explain the real conditions of religious oppression in Ceylon to Lord Derby, the Colonial Secretary, who quickly authorized the local government to make drastic reforms which gave great satisfaction to the Buddhists of Ceylon, who now enjoy religious liberty. An immediate result was the establishment of schools where Buddhist children could get a modern education without the risk of losing their ancestral faith. Through Olcott's efforts several colleges and hundreds of schools were soon established, and today the standard of education in Ceylon is excellent. (1)

For a short time this activity aroused misgivings among the Hindu and Parsi theosophists in regard to the neutrality of the Society; but it was soon made clear that theosophy was not identified with exoteric Buddhism, nor was the Theosophical Society's neutrality violated in the least. One of the avowed purposes of the movement is "to help the followers of each of the ancient faiths to find and live up to its noblest ideals" — these "noblest ideals" being, of course, identified with theosophy, and the "ancient faiths" naturally including Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, and the rest. The Master K.H. took pains to declare that the work of preserving Buddhism in Ceylon was truly theosophical.

While H.P.B. was in Ceylon she was approached by a youth who afterwards was known throughout Asia and even in the West as the greatest modern apostle and resuscitator of Buddhism. Hewavitarna Dharmapala became a devoted theosophist and a lifelong supporter of H.P.B. He would probably have devoted his life to theosophy, but she told him that his true line of work for humanity was the promotion of the pure teachings of the Lord Buddha, knowledge of which was threatened not only by Western materialism, but still more seriously by the incompetence, ignorance, and superstition of so many of the Buddhists themselves. Acting upon this advice, Dharmapala took up the study of Pali and, renouncing the "householder" life, spent the remainder of his days in the revival of the Dhamma in both East and West. He is said to have claimed to be a disciple of the Mahatma K.H., and he certainly never lost touch with H.P.B.

After the magnificent reception in Ceylon, H. P. Blavatsky and her workers returned to Bombay, leaving theosophy well established in the island. In this brief sketch much has to be omitted that is of great interest in regard to the spread of theosophy in India, of the striking successes and, sometimes, of the disappointments and failures inevitable in a work of such an unusual character and comprising such a varied personnel in its membership. H.P.B. must be pictured as working incessantly at her desk, writing innumerable articles and letters, interviewing inquirers, and occasionally sharing Colonel Olcott's long journeys in tropical heat and discomfort, by train, canal, or various forms of native transport, in order to start new branches, Sanskrit and other schools, and to discuss philosophical problems with learned Hindu, Parsi, Jain, Moslem, or other pandits. Many illustrations of the outer association and inner communion between H.P.B. and other chelas and with the Mahatmas can only be referred to in passing. To many persons in India, including Colonel Olcott and other foreigners, the Masters were anything but 'mythical.'

A vivid idea of the trying conditions under which the pioneers of theosophy had to conduct their activities in India is given by Olcott in a letter to W. T. Brown, a Scottish volunteer for theosophical service who ultimately withdrew after having been given special opportunities. Olcott says:

I wrote him from Hyderabad a kind but most explicit letter, warning him of the self-sacrifice he must expect to make; the public ingratitude, individual treacheries, libellous attacks on character, unjust suspicion of motives, bad fare and fatiguing journeys by nights and days in all sorts of conveyances: warning him to return to Europe if he had expected anything else, and leave H.P.B. and myself to continue the work we had begun with our eyes open. — O. D. L., III, 20

The unremitting labor in the trying Indian climate with its humidity in the monsoons, its terrible summer heat and dust, and the unrelieved strain of wearing anxieties told seriously upon H.P.B.'s health, and she gradually became chronically ill. At last her condition became so alarming that in the late summer of 1882 her physician told her plainly that she had only a short time to live, "perhaps a few days." In a farewell letter to Sinnett she makes a significant remark in the quaint, humorous way that no troubles could silence:

I tell you I am very very sick. Yes, I wish I could see you once more and dear Mrs. Gordon and my old Colonel whose "Grandmother" I may meet in some of the lower hells whither I will go — unless I am picked up by Them and made to stick in Tibet.

. . . I hope Mrs. Gordon will not dishonour [me] by evoking me with some medium. Let her rest assured that it will never be my spirit nor anything of me — not even my shell since this is gone long ago. — Blavatsky Letters, 37-8

Both H. P. Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott announced more than once that they would never appear through ordinary mediums, and it is perfectly safe to ignore all reports to the contrary, however plausible they may sound.

But H. P. Blavatsky's work was hardly begun in 1882 and, however critical her state might be, she could not be spared to go "Home," and so the Masters took quick action. They sent Gargya Deva, a chela from the Nilgiri Hills, near Madras, to Bombay to help their almost helpless messenger to reach one of their retreats in the Himalayan jungle in Sikkim. The journey must have been very trying for her, and in addition to difficulties arising from her illness she had to face the impossibility of obtaining official permission to cross the British frontier into Sikkim. She succeeded, however, in reaching the asrama where she found the Masters M. and K.H. with several of their chelas. During "the blessed blessed two days" as she calls them, that she spent there, she was restored to health.

This occasion was one of the three or more critical times when she was saved from death by her Master. Writing to a correspondent in France, she said that he had given her a medicine extracted from a Himalayan plant which she had to take seven times a day, and that within three days she was perfectly well. Her impressions of this visit to Sikkim are briefly but poetically described by her in the Blavatsky Letters, page 38. (2) In the Mahatma Letters, page 314, K.H. refers to this visit and describes her joy at meeting him and the Mahatma M. in bodily presence after a long separation during which she had only seen them clairvoyantly or in the mayavi-rupa or thought-body. The two Masters were on horseback accompanied by some of their chelas.

The first septenary cycle, the seven years from the formation of the Society until 1882, was a critical time, and during that initial period of growth it was necessary for the Masters and their chelas to take a more open and active part than was possible in later years. Efforts were made by them to form an "Inner Group" at Simla, in order to study in preparation for deeper teachings, and it dragged along for several years. Unfortunately, the would-be occultists failed to realize the basis on which the chela-life must be founded. Sinnett and Hume asked for instruction in occult science under conditions arranged by themselves, and impossible to accept. Subba Row agreed to give them "theoretical instruction" in philosophy, but not too willingly, as he foresaw the difficulties in store; and very little came from that effort. An extract from a letter from Subba Row, dated 26th June, 1882, is useful in showing the utter misconceptions that dominated the minds of even such intelligent men as Sinnett and Hume. He writes to them:

The qualified assent which you were pleased to give to the conditions laid down by me necessitated a reference to the Brothers for their opinion and orders. And now I am sorry to inform you that anything like practical instruction in the ritual of Occult Science is impossible under the conditions you propose. So far as my knowledge goes, no student of Occult Philosophy has ever succeeded in developing his psychic powers without leading the life prescribed for such students; and it is not within the power of the teacher to make an exception in the case of any student. . . . for the present you must be satisfied with such theoretical instruction as it may be possible to give you.

. . . You will be taking a very low view of Occult Science if you were to suppose that the mere acquirement of psychic powers is the highest and the only desirable result of occult training. The mere acquisition of wonder-working powers can never secure immortality for the student of Occult Science unless he has learned the means of shifting gradually his sense of individuality from his corruptible material body to the incorruptible and eternal Non-Being represented by his seventh principle. Please consider this as the real aim of Occult Science and see whether the rules you are called upon to obey are necessary or not to bring about this mighty change. — Mahatma Letters, 458-9

Those would-be occultists found it difficult to realize that "Devotion to the interests of others is the first test of apprenticeship." A wish to investigate psychic phenomena in order to satisfy ordinary scientific curiosity does not carry the student one step toward true occultism. A real occult teacher does not need to use arguments or even words, but when his chela is in perfect accord with him his thoughts penetrate by occult telepathy. Subba Row did the best he could on intellectual lines for his Western pupils, as he knew the importance of encouraging men of their energetic type who were capable of rousing his own countrymen from their lethargy.

Unfortunately, the attempt to create even a semblance of an Inner Group had to be abandoned in 1885 because of the inharmony among the candidates and their craving for personal advancement. They failed to realize that their quarrels and egotistic desires were hindering a world movement described as one of the three most important movements of the nineteenth century, and which the Master K.H. said:

is a question of perdition or salvation to thousands; a question of the progress of the human race or its retrogression, of its glory or dishonour, . . . — Ibid., 365

Mr. Sinnett's efforts to force the phenomenal and purely psycho-intellectual aspect of theosophy at the expense of the truly spiritual or occult, caused increasing friction and ultimately resulted in the withdrawal of the Master's attention from him, and in a complete break in his relation with H. P. Blavatsky. In her letters to him, her bitter disappointment at his uncomprehending attitude is strongly expressed. It would be a hard heart indeed who can study these poignant letters without the deepest sympathy and reverence for the "real H.P.B."

Sinnett not only failed to appreciate the more spiritual aspect of the Masters' work, but he very early in his theosophical career lost his sense of proportion in regard to H.P.B.'s standing as the direct agent of the Masters. For instance, in consequence of his misunderstanding of a slightly obscure passage in one of the Master's letters to him he insisted that Mars and Mercury were part of the earth's chain of globes; and, although the Master, on H.P.B.'s personal request, explained this fallacy, Sinnett stuck to his original misapprehension. The matter was fully treated and the mistake corrected when The Secret Doctrine was published (I, 160-70), but, unfortunately, a certain school of theosophy accepted Sinnett's view and built an erroneous superstructure upon it.

The true position and importance of H. P. Blavatsky as a leader and teacher was not adequately recognized by even majority of the members during the first septennate of the Society, and, as she said, some of her most troublesome antagonists were not the open ones — she was prepared for them — but in too many cases members of her "own household." Even Colonel Olcott, with all his devotion and goodwill, had to be pulled up sharply at times by his Master as well as by H.P.B., and reminded that although he, as president, was the highest officer in the Society, she was the life and soul of the movement in the nineteenth century. As a pledged disciple of a Master, a beginner, he was undergoing the intensive training which invariably brings the weaknesses of the personality to the front, so that they can be recognized and conquered. It is the unavoidable rule and a most beneficent one. At the same time, Olcott had to keep up his official dignity as best he could in spite of various mistakes in judgment caused by outer pressure and inner conflict. Few could have sustained the strain of his position. Although not naturally mystical, his unselfish devotion to the service of humanity showed that the real inner man understood the issues even though the brain-mind at times was bewildered.

Even Olcott did not sufficiently allow for one difficulty that caused some misunderstanding in H.P.B.'s relation with him and others, and which again arouses sympathy for her. A chela of an Oriental guru who works in the outside world has to face trying problems to which those who live in retirement are not exposed. There are many things regarding his association with his teacher about which the rules of his Order forbid him to speak. While this may seem strange to Westerners, it is not artificial or formal but a necessary arrangement, and in the Orient it is well understood. H. P. Blavatsky suffered severely from unavoidable misconceptions arising from this source; her silence was misconstrued and it was impossible for her to explain. At times the strain was terrible and she was obliged to appear what she was not. Writing to Miss Francesca Arundale in 1884, she touches on this subject:

. . . Now if these words are once more understood by you as implying that MASTERS either countenanced or encouraged deception then all I can say is you have not acquired yet the true perception of a theosophist — and I had hoped you had. There are things in the Occult circle which no one outside of it can rightly judge. That's all. — Theos., LIII, 361, July 1932

In another letter written to Mrs. Gebhard of Elberfeld, H.P.B. tells of her distress when she saw suspicion generated in the minds of sincere people by the impossibility of explaining certain refusals to give reasons for her actions. She writes:

Do you suppose for one moment that what you write to me now I did not know for years? . . . It is just that which killed me, which tortured and broke my heart inch by inch for years, for I had to bear it in silence and had no right to explain things unless permitted by Masters, and They commanded me to remain silent.The Path, VII, 382, March 1893

Her complete devotion and undaunted courage carried her through without breaking under trials that were almost unendurable. It is said to be a royal thing to be misunderstood when doing service, but it was a terrible thing to lose friends and co-workers, and to be proclaimed a charlatan by those who, had they known the truth, would have stood by her to the bitter end, at any cost. That was the tragedy revealed to the world when her letters to Sinnett were published.

The following striking passage is quoted from the admirable Defence of Madame Blavatsky by Beatrice Hastings, writing from the standpoint of an outsider who has made a close study of the subject and who loathes to see injustice done. With pungent irony the author explains the conditions under which H. P. Blavatsky was said to have forged the Mahatma letters, and shows how impossible this was under such conditions. The letters reveal a quiet mind, an unruffled temper, an undisturbed attention in their writers, as well as being as different in style from H.P.B.'s sledgehammer style as those of the letters of the two different Masters are from each other — which is very marked. During the period when these letters appeared H.P.B. lived in a tumult of conflicting emotions, was frequently ill, immersed in a constant round of exhausting activities, and had no money to spare. Mrs. Hastings writes, with some legitimate sarcasm indeed, on page 23, volume I:

It must not be supposed that Madame Blavatsky, at this period, had nothing to do but invent the style and forge the script of the "Mahatma Letters"; be the lioness of all the social gatherings, attend lectures, talk to all and everyone about Theosophy and the Society; sleep, bath, dress and eat; correspond with a hundred people all over India, write for the "Theosophist," read, and frequently comment on, articles sent in; keep in touch with her Russian editors and run an eye over the world's news and reviews; be ill; organise fraudulent phenomena, such as having diplomas buried under bushes miles outside Simla; hypnotise everybody everywhere to think, say and do just what she needed for the perpetration of her frauds; handle the network of confederates she had, the person who wrote the Jhelum telegram and the Amritsar postal employees who must have tampered with the post-mark, the god-like Hindu who bamboozled the Colonel with a rose in the Golden Temple and the "man in white" who must have stuck notes in trees; unpick a heavy old velvet and worsted cushion (and ensure that it should not be missed and asked for at any moment), unpick the inner lining, stick in a note and a brooch and sew the cushion up again, with new thread exactly the same as the old, without leaving a trace (velvet!); have endless discussions with Hume and other sceptics; travel, attend new Branch inaugurations, talk to new members; pass hours and whole days in despair and rage under a hurricane of slander, explain to friends and reply to enemies all around the country; fall desperately ill and, barely convalescent, gather up unerringly all the threads of her huge conspiracy . . .

The references to the notes, the cushion, the telegram and the diplomas relate to phenomena at Simla described in Sinnett's Occult World, and are mentioned in various letters by H. P. Blavatsky and the Mahatmas. The Golden Temple of the Sikhs is at Amritsar, and Colonel Olcott writes in Old Diary Leaves that when he and H.P.B. visited it in October 1880, one of the Masters came forward and greeted them, giving each a fresh rose. This was K.H., who refers to his visit to the Golden Temple in the Mahatma Letters, page 12.

Letter V in the Blavatsky Letters, upon which K.H. precipitated a long comment, bears out the point Mrs. Hastings makes in the above quotation. In that letter, H.P.B. reveals to Sinnett her terrible physical suffering and her mental distress at that crisis and, under the almost unendurable pressure, she even reproaches the Master in words she would never use under ordinary conditions. Yet K.H.'s script, accompanying the letter and only intended for Sinnett's perusal, explains her outburst in calm and dignified terms, using it to give him a profound lesson on the duality of man's nature. Racked with pain, tortured by a series of insults, and almost overwhelmed by other difficulties, it would have been impossible for her to have written that philosophical communication under such circumstances.


1. [In its issue of December 8, 1967, The Times of Ceylon (Colombo) published an article written by Gamini Navaratne under the heading, "Colonel Henry Steel Olcott: The Only Foreigner on Our Roll of National Heroes," from which we quote the following:

"Today Ceylon honors an American by issuing a postage stamp in his memory. It is by no means the first or the only honor bestowed on Col. H. S. Olcott. There already is at least one school, several cultural and religious organizations, a hall, even a public highway named after him. . . . Early this year, a lifesize statue of him was unveiled in Colombo. . . . And now a stamp. Apart from British Royalty no other foreigner has so far been honored in this fashion. . . . Olcott involved himself fully with the life of the people, made them aware of their rich cultural heritage, aroused their nationalism and literally set them on the road to a new life . . . Olcott has several other notable achievements to his credit. As a banner for Ceylon Buddhists, he devised a flag . . . [which] has become the emblem of international Buddhism." — ED.] (return to text)

2. Further details (concerning the journey) are given by S. Ramaswamier, a chela of the Master M., in The Theosophist, Dec. 1882. (return to text)

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